The Islamic Republic or the perils of being too powerful
The Middle East is poised at a unique moment in its long and often turbulent history. With the rapid changes in the security structure of the region, all the powers there are cautiously re-assessing their political strengths and weaknesses and re-evaluating their perceptions of threats and challenges.
Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Israel are the main regional players and are all reshuffling their cards for different reasons. Israel is trying to maximize its profit from the changing security environment; Egypt is trying to preserve and enhance its role in regional affairs as the traditional leader of the Arab world; Saudi Arabia is exercising damage-control on the impact of the changing world around it; and Syria and Iran are trying to minimize their losses and gain international acceptance and reinstitution as important elements in any future regional security and stability arrangement.
Iran is a unique case among these players due to a number of internal and external factors. These are crucial in its tug of war with its Arab neighbors, Israel and the U.S. Despite violent upheavals, a bloody war with Iraq, internal political tension, power struggles among the ruling elite and external threats and pressures, Iran has managed not only to survive but also to maintain a considerable degree of political stability. Contrary to prevailing misconceptions, Iran has a pluralistic and vibrant political and social dialogue domestically, and a diverse and active civil society. Pragmatists, moderates, traditionalists, radicals and hard-liners are all part of this discourse.
The major events emerging after the end of the cold war have heightened Iran's sense of danger and compounded its threat perceptions. The eight-year war with Iraq, the nuclearization of India and Pakistan, the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. and its allies, the continuous pressures on Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency to strip it of any potential nuclear capability, the international tolerance and silence over Israel's nuclear arsenal, the adoption of aggressive strategies of pre-emption, are all elements that have heightened Iran's sense of danger.
Naturally, as in any other nation under external threat, security and national pride override demands for freedom, human rights and democracy. Even in the United States people have agreed to curtail civil rights under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Fear is a powerful antidote to freedom.
These threat perceptions and dangers have allowed Iran's theocratic government and the hard-line clergy to consolidate their grip over the levers of power, and to tolerate only a limited degree of political pluralism.
The alarming deterioration in security in Iraq has made the country both a blessing and a curse for Iran. With the presence of the U.S., Iran is flanked from both sides by a superpower that considers Iran a member of the "axis of evil." On the other hand, Iraq, with its estimated 60 percent Shiite population having strong ties with Iran, could be a trump card for Iran to improve its regional status if it plays its hand smartly. Until now it has: Iran has, at least publicly, maintained a wait-and-see approach, while covertly encouraging Iraqi Shiites to do the same until American intentions regarding the shape of Iraq's political future become clearer.
The mounting resistance against the U.S. has come, until now, from Sunni Arabs who are finding it hard to let go of their historic hold on power in Iraq. This situation presents a serious dilemma for the Americans, as the ascent of Iraqi Shiites to power could create a power structure in Iraq that might adopt Iran's theocratic example if the Americans mess things up.
It is obvious that this scenario, of two powerful neighboring Shiite states, is unacceptable to the U.S. as it moves ahead with its plans to reshape the Middle East. It is also obvious, from a security standpoint, that the U.S. has no intention of allowing Iraq to rebuild its army, at least in the foreseeable future, or of withdrawing. The U.S. intends to maintain a strong military presence in the form of bases that would deter and subtly threaten any state in the region that would contemplate overstepping its role as perceived by the U.S. Such a permanent presence would also serve to free the U.S. from reliance on traditional allies in the Arab world and permit it to freely pursue its agenda of its Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative.
Arab-Iranian ties, meanwhile, can best be described as a love-hate relationship. Iran has a mixed record in terms of Gulf and Arab security. Although Iran no longer seeks to export its religious revolutionary model to neighboring and Arab states, many of its smaller neighbors, particularly those with a partially Shiites population, feel threatened by the sheer size of Iran and its military might. With Iraq out of the game, the American military presence is not only welcomed, but also perceived as a security necessity.
On the other hand, there is a sense of fraternity between Arabs and Iranians, as they share a common history and religion. They also see eye to eye on the oldest and most sensitive conflict in the region, namely the Arab-Israeli conflict. Both are disillusioned by biased American policies toward Israel and the blind strategic alliance between Israel and the U.S., particularly under the present neoconservative administration.
The issue of weapons of mass destruction is also another common area of understanding, as both sides feel they are being singled out to be barred from acquiring nuclear technology, even for peaceful use, while Israel is allowed to maintain the fifth most sophisticated nuclear arsenal in the world.
The only obvious winner of this regional political landscape is Israel, which did not hesitate to manipulate the war on terrorism to its advantage by drawing cynical comparisons between the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Palestinian struggle for freedom and an independent state. To further its military superiority, conventionally and unconventionally, Israel is fueling the rhetoric against Iran's nuclear program and its ties to terrorism, exploiting undercurrents of Western Islamophobia and feeding fears in the Gulf over Iran's conventional military power as a threat to Gulf stability.
The fact is that Iran now is a far less modern military power than it was under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi or during the Iran-Iraq war. Most of Iran's military hardware is aging, second rate, and worn down, while it is being denied access to modern weaponry and technology to replace what it has. Iran's weapons imports during 2000-2003 amounted to $500 million, in comparison to $2 billion in the years 1996-1999. This level of import is only about 35-50 percent of what is required to modernize its forces.
The fears of Iranian military power have been exaggerated politically by the U.S. and Israel to create demand in the smaller Gulf states for three things: an American military presence, new weapons and a need for a regional security structure or arrangement that includes Israel and external powers, while keeping the balance of power totally in favor of Israel.
This "unbalanced status quo" makes peace in the region totally dependent on Israel's interests and good intentions rather than any systematic guarantees for military stability.
Wael al-Assad is the director of the multilateral relations and disarmament department at the Arab League. The opinions expressed here are his own. This commentary first appeared in bitterlemons-international, an online newsletter